Gas station without pumps

2020 October 5

First Zoom lab

Filed under: Circuits course,Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:25
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I had my first remote lab session today, using Zoom to supervise pairs of students working from home.  It went more smoothly than I expected, but not perfectly.

I had pre-assigned lab partners to groups using a CSV file, following the instructions at  A couple minutes into the lab time, when most of the students had shown up, I opened the breakout rooms, and everyone managed to get into their rooms.

Except those students who showed up late—they had to be manually assigned to their rooms, and of course they did not remember what group number they were in, so I had look for them in my list of email addresses (which was not easy, because the name they were showing on the screen might have no more than 1 letter in common with their email address).  I wish that Zoom could remember the pre-assignment even for those who are late!

Once I finally got everyone into their breakout rooms, I started going from room to room, looking over the shoulders of the students and asking if they had any questions.  On the second or third room, the students couldn’t get screen sharing to work (though others had in other rooms).  I tried setting all the screen sharing options, but nothing seemed to work.

I left that group to answer a question in another room, which also turned out to be about screen sharing, but reactivating it for them worked!  So I went back to the room that first had trouble, and reactivated screen sharing for them, and this time it worked.

After that I mostly answered questions for a group until some other group asked for help, then I moved over and answered questions there.  It was very similar to the experience I had with the live labs, except that it was hard to see their breadboards.  Most of the questions were about setting up Waveforms on the Analog Discovery 2 to collect the data or about gnuplot scripts to plot and model the data.

A couple of times students had to quit Zoom and re-enter, and I had to reassign them to their breakout rooms.  It turns out that this can be done while in a breakout room, so I did not have to go back to the main room. Again, I wish Zoom could remember their assignments!

There were a few times when I was free to float between breakout rooms, and I think I managed to touch base with each group at least once, but I’m not 100% sure of that.

I was pretty burned out after 2 hours of being constantly “on”, but that is not so different from a usual lab session.  I did not, however, feel like recording another video tonight.

2020 July 23

Fall 2020 plans and tools

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 13:44
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I swapped my Fall sabbatical for a Spring one, so that I could have time to figure out how to move my lab course into an at-home lab. I also took a university-sponsored course this summer on remote instruction to help.  That course on remote-instruction has now ended, but I still have some work to do on converting my course.  USCS will still be providing some help—they’ll be paying for a student (one of my graders from last Winter) to edit the closed captions on my videos.

I’ve made a list of some of the tools I’ll be using for the Fall:

  • I’ll be using Canvas for collecting assignments (as I have for a couple of years) and SpeedGrader or Gradescope for grading them (the badly-named SpeedGrader for written assignments, as I’ve been doing, and Gradescope for quizzes, which will no longer be on paper).
  • I have my syllabus on my own website on the University server, so that it is public (I hate secret syllabi buried inside a learning-management system—they make it nearly impossible for students to know what a course is about before they have committed to taking it). All assignments, reading schedules, … are there. Only the assignment due dates are duplicated in Canvas.
  • I use Piazza for having students ask questions, as I’ve been doing for a couple of years. It is a much better interface than the Canvas discussion forums, and students are willing to use it.
  • I’ll be using Zoom for the synchronous parts of the course—lab times and office hours. That is new for me, but I’ve been in enough Zoom meetings, classes, and webinars now to have some idea what is reasonable. I’ll undoubtedly find all sorts of new problems in the first 2 weeks of class (particularly with breakout rooms, which have not worked very well any time I’ve been in them).
  • The small stipend I got for converting my course to online required that the lectures be fully asynchronous (and that any synchronous activities be attendable even by people in a time zone 15 hours different from mine). So I’m recording mini-lectures (6 minutes to half an hour) using OBS. I’ll probably have about 35–40 of them (considerably less lecture time than the usual 32.5 hours of lecture for the course, but some of that time would normally be taken up with quizzes). I’ve set up my desktop computer at home (shared with my wife) as a recording studio, with a green screen, a document camera, and (starting today, if it arrives as scheduled) a cardioid desktop microphone.
  • I’m also planning to have video answers to the quizzes that are unlocked by submitting the quiz—those I’ll have to do at the last minute, as I usually write each quiz after seeing what students got wrong on the previous quiz. The quizzes are fairly low stakes (all 10 quizzes add up to about 13% of the grade), so I’m not going to worry that a few of the students are going to cheat like hell on them—I’ll be saddened by the cheating, but I’m not going to proctor. If I get obvious cheating (like identical very wrong answers that can’t be easily explained except by copying), I’ll still do the academic-integrity reporting and fail the students.

I’ve recorded 31 mini-lectures so far, and I’m gradually getting better at using OBS and lecturing into the void, but it is very, very different from my usual style, which involves 50′ chalkboards and is an improvisational performance in response to student questions. I’m glad that I only have to do this online stuff for one year (I’m retiring in 2021).

UCSC is  almost fully online this Fall (21 in-person courses out of 1300, mostly small lab or grad courses, so less than 0.5% of total seats).  I expect that Winter quarter will be much the same, though some optimists expect more in-person course (up to maybe 5% of total seats).

I still have to work out (with the Baskin Engineering Lab Support staff) the logistics of shipping stuff to the students. The parts that were ordered for the cancelled Spring course are available in storage at UCSC, but we’ll have to add to the list to provide some duplication for mistakes (as students can’t get same-day replacements from the BELS supply room, nor can they borrow easily from classmates), plus providing resources that were previously communal (inductors, wire, solder, soldering irons, solder suckers, safety goggles, stainless-steel electrodes, electrode holders for Ag/AgCl electrodes, …).  I’ll be making up a list soon of the changed needs for the parts kits.  We’ll also have to work out which things the students need to ship back over winter break, for distribution to BME 51A students in Winter.

We’ll probably freeze the enrollment in the class in mid-September (no late adds this year!), so that there is time for shipping.  I currently have only 32 students in the class, down considerably from the 50 who passed the first half in Winter 2020.  Some students graduated in Spring 2020 (we granted some emergency course substitutions for students whose required courses were cancelled in Spring), but I was still expecting about 40 students this Fall.

2020 June 29

Mad at myself and Zoom

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:29
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Yesterday I was serving as the technician for a Zoom memorial event for my Dad, who died last Wednesday.  My sister handled the MC role, and several of us gave short eulogies.  My task was to share a screen of a slide show before and after the speeches, mute and unmute mics during the speeches, give one speech, and record the session.

I screwed up in two ways:

  • At the beginning of the speeches, I forgot to press the “record” button until a couple of minutes in, in the middle of the first eulogy.
  • At the end, I shared the screen for the post-talk slide show, but accidentally started the pre-talk slide show (which was almost identical), so everyone saw just the initial slide.

Those mistakes are both mine, so why am I mad at Zoom? Mainly because the feedback to the presenter is so poor:

  • The “recording” indicator is tiny, and nothing is shown when not recording, so there is little visual indication that you forgot to start recording.
  • When sharing the screen, the presenter is not shown what everyone else is seeing.  I was seeing the window that was running the slide show, completely unaware that everyone else was seeing a different window.  Zoom had shrunk the chat box, so the message to me that the image was frozen scrolled out of the chat box before I noticed.

I had one job to do … (well really 5, but I screwed up 2 of them).

These were good lessons for me about using Zoom (always scroll the chat box back, even if you are sure you’ve seen everything, always ask for confirmation that the shared screen is what you think it is, always check for the tiny recording indicator if you mean to record), but I sure wish that they had not happened during the memorial for my Dad.

I don’t know why Zoom does not show the presenter what the audience is seeing—having the Zoom window disappear may be a reasonable option, but there should be some way to stop it from happening.


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